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Three years ago, at the time of its tenth anniversary as Africa's newest state, Eritrea was still a place of cautious excitement about the possibilities that social change could bring. Matt Meyer reports on the dangers of militarism in post-revolutionary society and, in an exclusive interview for Peace News, talks with human rights campaigner Paulos Tesfagiorgis about the issues.

Breaking the cycle

Despite intense losses in the recently ended war with neighbouring Ethiopia, and a few worrisome signs of incursions on freedom of speech and the press, the hopes amidst the people of the horn of Africa rested on hard-fought victories and advances in areas of education, youth and women's mobilisation, and popular political participation.

Eritrea was poised to be part of the community of nation-states rejecting passive victimisation by the forces of globalisation, a leader amongst small countries working towards an independent path. As an activist and journalist, I reported in the pages of this journal the dreams observed at the freedom celebrations.

The headlines of the Annual Global Press Freedom World Tour, published this month by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), scream out: Eritrea: Three Years Without Independent Media. Noting that small Eritrea has quickly become Africa's biggest prison for journalists and critics, RWB calls the situation a unique one; no independent or privately-owned sources of news inside or out of the country have been allowed since September 2001.

The unusual nature of the Eritrean case is underscored by the number of staunch supporters of the revolution who have recently raised their voices in opposition to the policies of President Isaias Afwerki.

A leading western solidarity activist and author, Dan Connell, suggested that the past three years have seen dramatic and far-reaching turnabouts . . . that contradict the magnificent achievements of the independence struggle. The sad irony is that the special accomplishments of the Eritrean liberation movement from the 1980s until 2001 - the integration of ethnic and religious minorities, the focus on the status of women and girls, and the suppression of crime and economic corruption - have given way to a more typical dynamic: the concentration of power in a single, authoritarian ruler.

Seeds of repression

How did the Eritrean revolution go so quickly astray? Is the current quagmire simply the result of a powerful leader turning his back on the ideals he had fought for, or are there deeper causes of a more systemic nature? Interestingly, many Eritrean academics, activists, and supporters living abroad are looking critically at militarism itself as one of the issues leading to the current crisis.

Through the mid-to-late 1990s, the course of the Eritrean movement seemed clear: though all governments surely have institutional flaws, there was ample evidence of structural changes being made to empower the most disenfranchised of Eritreans on social, political, and economic levels. By late 1997, however, Ethiopian incursions into lands recognised internationally as being part of Eritrea set the course for a war that set the tone for future repression.

The war dashed the hopes of many citizens of both countries who, though suspicious of one another, understood the potential bonds between peoples whose lands and histories had been so deeply interwoven. Its intense escalation on both sides led to extraordinary human costs, and the peace accord process which began in 2000 in no way slowed down the military apparatus put into place and requiring front-line duty for almost all youth.

Against military service

Connell, whose previous writings in volumes such as Against All Odds have been devoted to chronicling the successes of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), has written decisively of the manner in which “intensified coercive measures became increasingly common” to keep young people stationed at their military posts.

With often-unclear directives as to how long they are required for duty, the military has now become a holding place for a country whose fragile economy was shattered by the war effort.

It was in this context that the first clampdowns began, in counter-attack against those who published an Open Letter calling for a full accounting of the management of the conflict with Ethiopia, signed by fifteen prominent Eritreans. By July 2001, after a lively several months of open, public discussions, arrests started in serious fashion. University of Asmara Student Union president Semere Kesete, the senior class valedictorian, was a symbolic early detainee, intended to send a message to the many youth who were speaking out against forced military service.

Unlimited detentions

Using the excuse of the War on Terrorism following 11 September 2001, widespread, unlimited detention became the order of the day for all who spoke out. Organising among Eritreans living outside the country, including those who have recently chosen to leave, has raised some international awareness of the problems Eritrea is currently facing.

One human rights campaigner who received much recent attention upon his receiving of the prestigious Rafto Award (previously given to Shirin Ebadi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others) is Paulos Tesfagiorgis, founder of the Citizens Initiative for the Salvation of Eritrea. A veteran of the EPLF and former director of the Eritrean Relief Association and member of the Eritrean Constitutional Commission, Tesfagiorgis has stated that he does not believe the situation to be beyond repair. In an exclusive interview with Peace News, he frankly discussed the roots of the problem and some lessons for the future.

MM: Would you characterise the current period as one of excesses, we asked, or is the repression and militarism of the past several years more deeply rooted in long-term problems?

PT: The Eritrean revolution had much to be proud about: a well organised liberation movement, clear political vision based on empowering the Eritrean people, and a lot of ambition to create a highly developed, strong and secure state. The post-independence policies were clear and progressive, though there were many difficulties in implementation. Politically, Eritrea was moving towards a constitutional government, and a constitution was drafted with extensive participation of the population. It was ratified by a Constituent Assembly.

However, the 1998 war with Ethiopia changed everything. The war was unexpected and the Eritrean authorities did not expect any military setbacks. Therefore, the military setback was a big shock and a major setback to the economic, social and political development of the country as well as to the confidence of the leadership and the general public.

Presently, peace with Ethiopia is still an illusive thing and the state of war still persists. As a result, every aspect of national life has become subordinate to the security and military exigency of the country.

The current repression in Eritrea can be characterised as a combination of the current situation and a manifestation of the nature of a military organisation that brought Eritrean independence. War is said to be the worst enemy of democracy and human rights. Many freedoms, such as freedoms of expression, association, movement, can be curtailed, even suspended, detention can become more frequent, etc.

Though it is not always justifiable, it can be understood in a war situation if done according to the law. In the case of Eritrea, it is done in absolute disregard of due process of law. In addition, the present party in power is a former liberation front, a basically military organisation that was designed to bring independence militarily. Therefore, commitment to democratisation and human rights guarantees were secondary to winning the war of independence. This makes it extremely difficult to make smooth transition to a civilian, democratic governance.

The degrees of militarism in liberation movements vary. However, a liberation movement in power without other forces in the nation to temper its militarism, a liberation movement in power that enters into a second war soon after independence, is bound to fall back into absolute militarism. Militarism is its history, orientation and experience. It feels more at ease in that situation and even if it does not like it, it sees little opportunity to manoeuvre out of it.

MM: To what degree is the current Eritrean economic situation dependent on forced labour through national service? Evaluate the prospects for a progressive conscientious objector movement in contemporary Eritrea.

PT: Eritrea does not have many natural resources [that are] properly exploited to support the economy and to earn it substantial foreign currency. Its income source has been mostly money sent from Eritreans working abroad - remittances. There was not much in terms of economic aid or loans coming from international sources, though it was just beginning before the recent war.

On the other hand, Eritrea has about 300,000 young, able bodied, people with different skills, in the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) idly wasting their time in between battles and with no military engagement since May/June 2000. Therefore, the members of the EDF, basically the youth in national service, are used in construction projects: roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, and government offices. They also work in commercial farms. All practically without pay - a maximum of US$25 per month.

I do not envisage a “progressive conscientious objector movement” any time in Eritrea soon. The nature of the war Eritrea is involved in currently does not make it easy for people to initiate conscientious objector movements as it as assumed, whatever part the Eritrean leadership played in igniting the war, that this war is a war of survival, a continuation of the war of independence.

This is not to mean that people support the war and are willingly engaged in defending their country. They don't like the war, but they don't have much choice but to defend the country. Choices are made [particularly] difficult because of Ethiopia's actions: not abiding by the decision of the Eritrean Ethiopian Boundary Commission decision - an international obligation that it entered into willingly. It evokes the feeling that Ethiopia wants to invade Eritrea again and gives the government ample excuse to call it a war of national survival.

In Eritrea presently, there is not even a peace movement, an organised citizen movement that calls for peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Until we see people committed enough, bold enough to call for peace between the two countries, I do not believe we will see any conscientious objector movement in Eritrea. Those who object to the war are crossing over to neighbouring countries as refugees. Those in the Diaspora who object to the war do not sufficiently articulate their objection in such a way as to object to war itself; their objection is primarily to the repression and excesses practised by the Eritrean Government.

MM: You have stated that “whoever comes to power through violence and the barrel of the gun would not be democratic, for he would not be accountable to the people”. To what degree is your support for nonviolent alternatives conditioned on new philosophical observations, as opposed to a strategic or tactical assessment of the current moment? Can democratic revolutions ever come about through armed struggle?

PT: My objection to change brought through violence is based both on philosophical observations and a strategic assessment of the current moment, which, in a way, are closely linked. I can see people [are] forced to resort to armed struggle to gain their independence or defend their country, when all political, civil and diplomatic efforts have failed. That was the Eritrean armed struggle. It was for self-determination. It was for independence, and Eritrea won the war militarily. But military victory by itself does not foster democratic development. There is something associated with the notion of military victory that militates against peaceful democratic development - the belief in the might of the gun.

If this is the case (even in the situation of the struggle for self-determination), we should absolutely rule out the use of armed men or violence to bring change within an independent country. In the first place, for those who are overthrown militarily with their supporters still remaining in the country, hatred will be festering and feelings of revenge will remain in their hearts. When the opportunity comes, they might resort to violent change. Second, those who have taken power by violence will be uncertain about the intentions of those who have been overthrown or removed by force and therefore would continue harassing them, treading a vicious circle of suppression. Thirdly, it will not be easy for those who have taken power by force to respect the will of the people, as they did not come to power through elections and the support of the population. Violent regime change is a complicated process that has the potential of perpetuating itself.

Product and process

There can be no question that the situation in Eritrea is bleak. In that sense, Eritrea is much like the rest of the world. The exciting experiments contained in the Eritrean process, however, may just provide the seeds for a deeper, lasting change.

The lessons Tesfagiorgis reflects upon can be seen as reflective of a larger examination on the nature of social change. “A return to armed resistance”, as he noted in his Rafto acceptance speech, “will inevitably stifle efforts to develop democratic trends within the opposition movement itself. We must learn from past mistakes: an opposition movement that stifles internal democracy will be incapable of ruling democratically after achieving power.”

We must all learn from past mistakes, and from one another. Democracy, accountability, and an end to militarism, cannot simply be products of the revolutionary process. In Africa, as in the North, the product and the process are connected.

Matt Meyer is co-convener of the War Resisters' International Africa Working Group, author of Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Armed Struggle, Nonviolence, and Revolution, and of the forthcoming Time is Tight: Transformative Education in Eritrea, South Africa, and the USA. Meyer also serves as cochair of the North American IPRA affiliate, the Peace and Justice Studies Association.